While Alex is teaching at the Pen to Press Writers’ Retreat in New Orleans and then racing back to BEA today, Murderati is proud and thrilled to host the amazing Megan Abbott.
Megan Abbott has taught literature, writing and film at New York University and the State University of New York at Oswego. Born in the Detroit area, she graduated from the University of Michigan with a B.A. in English Literature. She received her Ph.D. in English and American literature from New York University in 2000, and in 2002 Palgrave Macmillan published her nonfiction study, The Street Was Mine: White Masculinity in Hardboiled Fiction and Film Noir. She lives in New York City. Die a Little is her first novel and has been nominated for a 2006 Edgar Award for Best First Novel by the Mystery Writers of America and a 2006 Barry Award and Anthony Award for Best First Novel.
Her second novel, The Song Is You, arrived in bookstores in January 2007 and centers around a true-life missing persons case in 1940s Hollywood. Her third novel, Queenpin, came out in June 2007 and won the 2008 Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original.
I’m a weekend writer. Well, that’s not entirely true. I write all week at my day job as a grantwriter at Union Settlement, a 113-year-old nonprofit agency in East Harlem. But the writing I do there is so different. It’s about constructing an argument. It’s about rationality, logic, supporting one’s argument. It comes from a completely different part of my brain than the fevery stuff that sometimes stutters onto the page during my weekend writing. I write in an entirely different voice and a different part of my head gets activated at work. All week I write about the need for more after-school programs or senior nutrition services in Spanish Harlem. And on the weekend, I write about 1950s Hollywood, or after-hours gambling clubs or b-girls in trouble. Mostly, it’s a split life, the life of so many novelists I know who, in the daylight hours, write as lawyers, journalists, professors, etc. and, vampire-like, transform when they turn on their home computer every evening.
The common ground, I guess, is that most kinds of writing are about persuasion. Trying to stir up the reader. Follow me down this dark alley. Give our agency money. Kind of the same thing. This week, I had a moment when I realized how fundamental that connection is, the foundation of maybe all writing, even the writing we only write for our own eyes (don’t we, in our diaries, try to persuade ourselves of things?).
Each year, our Adult Education Program holds a student reading at the 92nd Street Y. In a beautifully restored auditorium, our literacy, English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL), GED and Citizenship students fill the space and take turns at the microphone. Students from Mexico, Colombia, Yemen, Morocco, Senegal. There’s the 52-year-old New York native with five daughters who decided to finally get that GED. There’s the group of women who speak three languages but can read or write in none of them, having never been permitted to go to school in their native country. The cabbie who writes lovely poems about his childhood home in Chile. It’s a little bit of memoir, a little personal essay, a lot of warm gratitude between teachers and students. It’s always a poignant experience for everyone involved.
This year, it just hit me more. Among the many students who took his turn at the microphone was an older man, very dignified, from Uruguay. He read a short piece of his own, in tones so delicate, about his family coming together for his beloved sister’s funeral in his hometown. “She was so beautiful,” he read (and I paraphrase), “hair so black and eyes deepest blue. The most beautiful of all my sisters. And I loved her. We all looked at her, we looked together. Looked at the black hair and those bluest of all eyes. The most beloved of all of us.”
His pronunciation was so unusual, the way the words moved in his mouth, the way he cradled them, speaking so movingly. It felt like he was tucking the whole audience under long robes. I guess I was only half-surprised when the Program Director leaned across and whispered to me excitedly, “He’s an undercover priest!” She went on to tell me he was a priest in Uruguay and speaks several languages and of course knows Latin but had never before written in English. “He’s been waiting for this,” she said. “In class, everyone always wants him to read.” He carried the whole audience with him, and it was not just the content or the melodic quality of his voice. The writing itself was so delicate, musical, with artful repetitions that, like a good sermon or a perfect poem, engage you in the writing, make you feel a part of it, make you feel connected. I was envious and mesmerized.
It all reminded me of another work event, a year ago. Novelist Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections) visited our students. He read a piece about his own awkward adolescence, about the way he used to escape into books and into his own first attempts at writing. During the Q&A, the eight- or nine-year-old son of a student rose to ask, “When you write, do you feel powerful?” Franzen laughed admiringly, paused, then said, with all gravity, “Sometimes.”
Thanks so much for having me!